What is Compassion in the time of Covid-19?

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In a three-part series, Kitty Wheater, Mindfulness Chaplain, explores the idea of compassion and what it means to situate this understanding in the pandemic we’re living through.

Compassion is attentiveness to the suffering of ourselves and others, with the wisdom and steps taken to relieve it. Compassion calls forth action, but with the wisdom to know when, how and what is required.

Harriet Harris and Marti Balaam

Closeup shot of two unrecognizable people holding hands in comfort at home

II – Compassion in the Time of Covid-19

We can find one indication of what compassion looks like in the time of Covid-19 in what happened when Emily Maitlis introduced Newsnight a while ago.

‘They tell us coronavirus is a great leveller. It’s not,’ she said.

‘This is a myth which needs debunking. Those on the front line right now – bus drivers and shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shop keepers – are disproportionately the lowest paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown a lot tougher. Those who work in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health.’

Maitlis spoke about the unequal effects of Covid-19 across our society at the beginning of April, even before evidence emerged that BAME groups are more likely to develop and die from the disease, and the government faced calls for an independent inquiry. Her words seemed bold, and that in itself is striking. Striking, too, was widespread praise for her ninety second monologue. ‘Extraordinary,’ said one commentator. ‘As great and as brief a comment on the truth of the pandemic as we’ve yet seen,’ said another.

The response to Maitlis’ speech reveals our collective hunger for discernment – and it reveals collective assent as to what compassion looks like during this time. Compassion, now, means telling the truth about the disproportionate effects of this pandemic across our society. It means acknowledging difference, and differential vulnerability. We don’t just want to hear that we are ‘all in this together’; we are not all on a level.

And yet: here is another indication of what compassion must look like in the time of Covid. Palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life, recently critiqued the military language used to describe the pandemic, and the heroic rhetoric for healthcare staff. After Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons defence select committee, suggested that the Red Arrows should perform flypasts during Thursday evenings’ ‘clap for carers’, Clarke wrote, ‘the increasingly bombastic proposals for honouring our “sacrifice” are beginning to feel more burdensome than uplifting… Medals, I imagine, are a matter of glory. But right now, my needs are frankly more prosaic. What I crave is sufficient masks and gowns.’

The story of battles, frontlines, heroes, and enemies, is an ancient one, containing a profound form of division – because to make healthcare workers ‘heroes’ makes them not like us. This is dehumanising, as Clarke shows. ‘Heroes aren’t scared. Heroes don’t cry. Heroes are immune to PTSD. Heroes don’t need work-life balance and lunch breaks. Heroes don’t lie awake at night worrying about infecting their partners and children.’ Being scared, and crying, and needing lunch breaks, are human – and prosaic – forms of suffering. The provision of masks and gowns would be a compassionate step to relieve them.

In one sense, the ethos revealed in Maitlis and Clarke’s respective stories is the same. Maitlis shows that to deny the reality of Covid-19’s disproportionate effect across our society is to dehumanise a large and integral part of it. Clarke shows that to claim the otherness of healthcare workers is to deny their human vulnerability, too.

But in another sense, the stories that Maitlis and Clarke have told us are different. For Maitlis, compassion means acknowledging that people are different from one another. And for Clarke, it means acknowledging that we are the same.

This tension is at the heart of the questions that we must reckon with, as we determine what compassion looks like in the time of Covid-19, because it is a tension at the heart of modern liberalism. In the era of globalisation, this pandemic has not suspended questions of identity, difference, and belonging; in the era of austerity government, it has not suspended questions of responsibility and care.

Rather, just as our ordinary ethical life heightens, so too do our socio-politics. Compassion, argues Lauren Berlant, is ‘a social and aesthetic technology of belonging and not an organic emotion’. This is not ‘to demean its authenticity and its centrality to social life’.ii But recall the first part of Harris’ and Balaam’s definition of compassion, that it is ‘attentiveness to the suffering of ourselves and others’. We must be alert to the specific ways in which ‘ourselves’ and ‘others’ are construed during this time, because in ethical practice across history and culture, it is not only the what, when and how that determines what compassion will look like. It is also the who: who is deemed worthy of care, and who is responsible for it.

These questions are key to the Maitlis and Clarke examples. Here is how Clarke tackles the second: ‘I should stress,’ she writes, ‘that the weekly outpouring of gratitude from the public reliably reduces me to tears… When doing your day job could cost you your life, knowing the public are behind you means everything. But government war talk is an altogether different matter.’

In times like these, thinking critically about what compassion could look like means being discerning about who enacts it. The word ‘discernment’, from the Latin discernere, means to separate, divide, and distinguish. It means recognising where things are different from each other. A government is a different kind of responsible actor than a human being. In being compassionate, governments and citizens may therefore tell different narratives, and do different things. While the public’s ‘clap for carers’ lands as compassion, Clarke wants the government to tell the prosaic stories, not the wartime ones, because she argues that the state’s ‘heroisation’ of healthcare staff conceals a lack of compassion in deed.

What we have witnessed of responsibility and worthiness thus far during the time of Covid-19 demands that we ask more hard questions. Can the state be compassionate? Is compassion simply down to us? Is that a problem? These are philosophical questions, but they are also empirical. Berlant writes that, in the US, ‘the word compassion carries the weight of ongoing debates about the ethics of privilege – in particular about the state as an economic, military, and moral actor that represents and establishes collective norms of obligation.’ By Berlant’s reckoning, the state can indeed be compassionate. But for the empirical truth of that, we must watch.

Kitty’s weekly mindfulness virtual drop-in consists of an email with a suggested practice, theme, and article or podcast episode for reflection, to explore in your own time. To subscribe, email mindfulness@ed.ac.uk 

Weekly mindfulness virtual drop-in.

ii Lauren Berlant, ‘Introduction’, in L. Berlant, ed., Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (London, 2004), p. 5.

This piece was originally published in full on the Chaplaincy website.

Photography: PeopleImages/GettyImages